There is no mention whatever of black tea before the Ming period. As John C. Evans writes in Tea in China: “No factual basis exists for assuming an ancient origin for black tea. Furthermore, all Chinese sources agree that black tea did not appear by the Ming dynasty but after its founding.” Although black tea or bongcha – red tea – as the Chinese called it, became popular in “barbarian lands” it has never been much appreciated in China proper. The workers who produce Keemun, perhaps the finest black tea in the world today, many would claim, drink green tea at their labors. Black tea was developed by the Ming in their ever-expanding government plantations producing tea for export. The principal customers seem to have been the Manchurian nomads who subsisted entirely on the milk and meat of their herds. And black tea suited milk fine.
Through an irony of history, these customers for black tea – the Manchu – managed to occupy Bejiing in 1644, resulting in a new emperor and a new dynasty, the Qing. The Manchu misunderstood the Chinese enough to have a saying, “They would steal the milk out of the tea if they could!” not realizing that Chinese have an abhorrence of milk and would never dream of adding it to tea! An eyewitness in 1793 reported that Qing Emperor Qianlong (or Ch’ien Lung) “drank a tea mixture that would little please the Chinese, since the Emperor’s tea was infused with as much milk as water.” Black tea with milk can justifiably be called Manchu-style tea.
To Europeans black tea was first known as congou, a corruption of kung-fu (gongfu) meaning “skill and effort” in reference to the extra steps required to manufacture black tea. Congou is still the trade name for China’s numerous black teas. Prominent examples are Sichuan, Ichang, Fujian, Ningchow, Hunan, and Pingsuey. China’s most famous black teas today are Keemun and Yunnan.
Read next: Keemun – Splendor of Flavor and Perfume
Photo “tea plantation, yunnan” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “Yasamono” and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “tea time” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer “Kanko” and is being posted unaltered (source)